Director: Marshall Brickman
Writer: Thomas Baum and Marshall Brickman
Cinematographer: Billy Williams
Producer: Marshall Brickman and Jennifer Ogden
by Jon Cvack
Given that I was using my girlfriend’s streaming account, I couldn’t remember whether I’d seen this film before. Needing something lighter, I started it up and was excited to recall the storyline about a kid that builds a nuclear bomb in his bedroom. It had to have been about eight years since I’ve seen this thing, as I could hardly remember much beyond certain images - like the neon green goo and the frisbees tossed down the hallway. Although heavily influenced by War Games (1983), the movie stands strong on its own, and I was left wondering why I only gave this ⅗ starts back whenever I first saw.
The story starts with John Lithgow as Dr. John Mathewson, new Head Researcher at a government funded laser manufacturing lab Medatomic - where John and his team have just developed the most potent form of plutonium ever created, coming in the form of a neo green goo, controlled by a robot positioned inside a glass cage. Although clearly influenced by War Games’ [far superior] intro, The Manhattan Project hooks you right in, reminding me that this film wasn’t some goofy teen comedy, but a fairly serious and eerie story which treated all of its characters as mature and complex characters.
After the foreboding intro, we meet the precocious and highly intelligent high school student Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet) whose penchant for science rivals even his teachers. In the first scene, we see him using the lab equipment to concoct an explosive material which can explode upon the slightest impact. He places some on the door of his rival student - a square and dandy young man, who while knowing the answer to everything, has hardly any of the passion. The best part about Stephens is his ability to make big brains seem cool. He dresses in sneakers, old t-shirts and jeans, he’s funny with a smart ass attitude and thick sarcasm. We don’t always like the guy, as his ego often cause him to say or do things that make us want to slap him across the face.
After school, an attractive and sweet girl Jenny Anderman (Cynthia Nixon) invites Paul to come over to “study” in as a direct a way as possible. Once again, I was impressed by the honesty of the scene - the movie isn’t laughing at the way kids talk about sex, taking it all that seriously, or attempting to talk around what couples often do when they study. As I say often say again and again, especially about such stories as Super 8 or Stranger Things, many modern films condescend toward the kid characters, having them all talk about serious things far too seriously, leaving out the more mature and nuanced conversations kids often have. Not everything needs to drift constantly between melodrama and humor as classic films like The Goonies, War Games, and E.T. demonstrated.
Dr. Mathewson meets Paul’s mom, realtor Elizabeth (Jill Eikenberry), while looking for an apartment. Now that I piece together the timeline I realize that either Dr. Mathewson was homeless for quite awhile, or he created that plutonium with lightning speed, as when he meets Elizabeth Stephens (Jill Eikenberry), he’s looking for a place to live; not caring what it looks like so long as it can provide enough room for him and his books. With the perfect touch of creepiness, Lithgow flirts with Elizabeth, suggesting a date, and getting turned down. Paul then enters the office, instantly suspicious. However, when John notices Paul’s interest in science, he proposes to take him to see his Medatomics’ new laser, so long as he can get a date with the mother. It’s weird, but they all agree.
At the lab, Paul notices the neon green goo, stored in its sophisticated robotic glass cage, then seeing the lasers, in which John lights up a cigar via the laser beam that leaves you wondering if the 80s allowed smoking in science labs. Outside, Paul discovers a five leaf clover, leading him to think that something’s just not right with the town’s Nuclear Production Facility. When he talks to Jenny, we see director Marshall Brickman accomplish a really cool and simple blocking exercise (see the entry on Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)), where Jenny and Paul make their way between the living room and kitchen.
Not to dwell too heavily on this, but for anyone wondering what television often misses that films don’t it’s this exact element. I’m not talking a "West Wing" walk-and-talk, so much as a clever and subtle way for the characters to interact with one another while utilizing the environment. Rather than a shot reverse shot between the two characters the couch, Brickman allows the takes to roll (and he’s not even known for being a director, but rather a screenwriter). The see culminates in Jenny asking for evidence of the lab’s nefarious activity, to which Paul pulls out the five leaf clover. Jenny asks what we’re all thinking - namely, what’s one clover really mean; to which Paul then pulls out an entire handful. The moment provided the film’s finest layer of suspense.
So follows an incredible heist sequence of Paul and Jenny sneaking into the laboratory in order to get some of the plutonium. By now you accept that Paul isn’t just smart for a high school student, but for a Stanford Phd candidate. And while some might find this distracting, I love these types of characters. Combined with a very real and developed personality, it’s characters like Paul that could inspire younger kids who might be turned off by how boring science can be. Paul makes it seem fun and badass, especially with the tricks he thinks of - such as during the frisbee scene. Having only a vague recollection of what occurred, Paul throws frisbees down two hallways to set off the laser alarms. I’m figuring, “Well, of course they’ll find the frisbees” to which Paul then races down one hallway to pick up the frisbee, then heads down the other hallway in order to grab the second frisbee and make his way down the lab. For anyone thinking this was obvious, sorry for wasting your time. I thought this was an clever moment.
And then Paul decides to make a nuclear bomb with the loot. It was here that I was kind of pulled out of the story, which really played as a plot-serving device in which the military comes into town in order to retrieve the device. The problem is that Paul has demonstrated his supreme intelligence so well at this point that his ego must have grasped the danger of building a bomb; not just to himself, but the entire community. And while maybe Brickman wanted to explore hubris, I just failed to buy it; especially when you learn the movie was influenced by the 1977 “A-Bomb Kid”; a student at Princeton who wrote on a paper how to just build a bomb. There’s no evidence the “A-Bomb Kid” ever built the device, probably because he grasped how stupid it was do even try such a thing. Unfortunately, a paper doesn’t make for as good a movie. I just felt that there was a far better way to get to the same conclusion - either because he found instructions for a mysterious device that happened to be a nuclear bomb, or contained a more unhinged personality. None of these ideas are good, but at least they make sense. Paul’s ability to sneak into the lab demonstrated his understanding of danger and how to manage it. Up until building the bomb, he was smart and strategic, fully aware of the dangers he’d have to overcome. If his character was a paranoid schizophrenic, whose scientific mind became overwhelmed with the imaginings of a nuclear holocaust, it might have made sense.
Just like War Games, Red Dawn, or Back to the Future - the film captures the 1980s Nuclear age paranoia and just like Back to the Future it involves plutonium, leaving me to wonder if Marshall Brickman pulled directly from Zemeckis, or they they just both so happened to find plutonium as an interesting plot device. Considering this was released just shy of a year later, I’m suspecting the latter. However, The Manhattan Project’s case, it was a far less successful, hardly making back even a quarter of its budget - leaving me kind of surprised.
Ebert had even given the film four stars, and I’d say while maybe not as good as War Games, it’s definitely a close second, containing an intelligence that extends all the way up and to the last scene. Perhaps it was both War Games and Back to the Future’s wild success that left little interest for additions to the genre. Unfortunately, Marshall Brickman would only go on to make one more movie after The Manhattan Project with the television movie “Sister Mary Explain It All” (which looks absolutely ridiculous) shot fifteen years later. Though he did write Eastwood’s Jersey Boys in 2014, it leaves me wondering what else he would have done if this film had proved to be a bit more successful. I think in a few years, as the 80s become all the more vintage, it might finally find a larger audience.
BELOW: Literally nothing on YouTube beyond the trailer, so here ya go
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